By the time I picked up Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, I had already begun an ambitious reading streak. I read Camus' The Stranger when I was ten (big mistake), Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude a few years later. Books were my first sex-ed classes; my first encounters with death and betrayal and injustice. But there was another reason I kept turning to novels: they offered a brutally honest guide to growing up. A no-nonsense glimpse into adulthood that adults in real life would never give you.
I probably found Cat's Eye on my Canadian dad's bookshelf near other authors of national pride, such as Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and Farley Mowat. Cat's Eye is a beast of a book – it's some 500 pages long – but I was hooked instantly and tore through it.
The protagonist, Elaine, is artistic and perceptive; disorientated by girl-dom – like me, I thought. Elaine's childhood is filled with deep, fraught relationships; including with a girl named Cordelia. In the first few pages, the two take a streetcar through mid-century Toronto, acting like they own it: "She can out-stare anyone, and I am almost as good. We're impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen...Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends."
In this book, growing up is dark and brutal. There is self-mutilation, cruelty and bullying. My own preteen years in Cleveland in the '90s were, thankfully, never that dark. But there was a truth there that I connected to, that I had never seen on a page before. Something many other fictional versions of childhood gloss over or miss entirely. There I was, I thought, my self and my world on the page.
But then, this was a coming of age novel, and soon enough the protagonist came of age. She went to art school and juggled trysts with a moody classmate and a demanding professor. She had an unexpected pregnancy, a horrible marriage, a tragic death in the family. She became a successful painter, but kept looking back at her life, unable to suss out its worth. I was still a just kid, reading a big book with wide eyes.
I was definitely too young for this book, both because of its moral complexity and its grim plot. Still, I'm so glad I read it. It took me through one woman's messy life, and I grew wiser for it. Yes, for a young reader, Cat's Eye was a kind of guide to growing up, but I came to realize it was one of many guides in many novels - including ones that show a path through growing older filled with more lightness and joy.